March 20, 2009
The Changing Face of Diversity in the Architecture Industry

by Curtis J. Moody, FAIA

How do you . . . Set your compass toward success under adverse conditions?

Summary: Finding success is a talent minority- and women-owned firms have honed in the past quarter century, argues Curtis Moody, FAIA, name principal of the largest minority-owned firm in the country. And it is not a matter of prevailing alone, he says. It requires developing collaboration, trust, perseverance, and self confidence.

Just as the buildings we design tell a story—of the growth, change, dreams, and development of our clients and communities—so too do the blueprints of the architecture industry. Minority firms especially have realized an expansion of opportunities since I started my firm more than 25 years ago. Having endured numerous challenges because of our predominantly minority demographic, we have made significant progress in building our reputation to be increasingly recognized as an integral part of the industry landscape. As every sector now faces an uncertain economic future and companies are slimming budgets to retain their resiliency, lessons learned from the rise of minority entities can be applied across markets and ethnicities alike.

Building resiliency, gaining trust
Advancements in technology have certainly contributed to making the world smaller, connecting thought and knowledge at a more global level. While this has helped broaden appreciation and acceptance of cultural influences, two fundamental qualities I’ve found necessary for weathering tough times—whether they be racial or economic—are perseverance and self-confidence. Many potential clients were previously uncomfortable with enlisting professional services from a minority firm, and we’ve received a “B List” ranking for projects regardless of our size or experience. Rather than letting our creativity and aspirations be deterred by this resistance, we resolved to prove time and time again that we would “out-work” the competition, demonstrating that our work ethic is high, integrity is unmatched, and industry expertise is on par with majority companies. The result? We’ve moved from being perceived as a second-rate firm for even small collegiate projects to being invited to submit a design for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History & Culture—the last museum to be constructed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and the first national museum to display the rich culture of African Americans. Not only does this attest to the industry skills of the firms included in the shortlist—all which have African-American representation—it is also a key example of the overall increase of acceptance and appreciation of minority firms’ contributions.

For minority- and female-operated and small businesses that face adversity on an ongoing basis, the principles of perseverance and confidence are especially important to remember. It’s not easy, but letting determination be your driver will pay off. Aspiring practitioners need to seek counsel, ask questions, and heed advice from those more experienced in the field. And senior practitioners need to be open to providing this counsel. Although helping others develop their skill set theoretically increases competition, we need collaboratively to break down the barriers and misconceptions of race, serve clients more effectively, and make them confident and comfortable in our abilities.

It’s also a time for firms to explore further partnerships and build relationships with other firms—minority and majority alike. For example, the work of my firm with Antoine Predock Architect PC for the National Museum of African American History & Culture combines Moody•Nolan’s African American experience with the internationally recognized design talents of Antoine Predock. Beginning nearly a decade ago, our relationship has evolved into an equal partnership. We worked hard to demonstrate our assets to Antoine Predock and have established a high, mutual respect for one another’s work.

The future’s blueprints are unknown
The next chapter of the industry and our country is exciting and uncharted. With the election of President Barack Obama, we’ve positioned a minority in the highest office in the country—setting a role model for all industries and further proving that minorities are responsible and professional. This will encourage aspiring architects to “follow their dreams” and simultaneously encourage decision makers to be more comfortable and accepting of hiring minority firms for signature projects.

However, the future is equally uncertain. The economic downturn has destroyed many small firms and left many others struggling. Architecture firms—numerous and diverse—are experiencing a dramatic slowdown in activity, with both billings on ongoing projects and inquiries for new ones posting their sharpest monthly declines in the AIA’s 13-year history of tracking architecture business trends. President Obama’s economic stimulus package provides some hope—billions of dollars are being dedicated to sustainable initiatives, leading to more “green” projects and the development of government buildings, from defense to medical facilities—but it’s untold how quickly we’ll be able to reverse the economic downturn.

Regardless of what lies ahead—in the future of the economy and minority businesses—we need to continue making smart business decisions, leaning on one another in times of uncertainty. Having been actively involved in the industry for more than 25 years, I’ve learned that more than feeling self accomplished in individual successes, architects—whether majority, aspiring, experienced, or minority—need to have a collective goal of fulfilling accomplishment for others, especially our clients.

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Curtis J. Moody, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP, is president and founder of Moody•Nolan, Inc., an architecture, interior design, and civil engineering firm specializing in health-care, higher-education, sports/recreation, and public-service facilities. Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, Moody•Nolan is the largest African-American owned and operated architecture and engineering firm in the nation. For more information, visit the firm’s Web site.

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